Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Brokeback Mountain -- The Opera


First, let's deal with the movie. This is what I had to say about it when I first saw it:

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005). Director: Ang Lee.

This is based on a novella by Annie Proulx that appeared in The New Yorker in 1997. The story deals with an awkward, stumbling, but affecting love affair between two stoic cowboys, Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger), and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), both of whom marry women and have families while keeping the other in his heart – and having infrequent assignations -- until a tragic conclusion ends their affair forever. The story begins in 1963, when it was much less easy for gays to accept themselves and come out, but these men, especially Ennis, still seem comparatively closeted twenty years later when it was a different story. The film works on two levels: as an examination of the stifling, hypocritical, mendacious half-life inside the closet, and a sub-text of all the emotional damage that men like Ennis and Jack do to the women who innocently love them. The performances from everyone in the cast are excellent, with Ledger particular outstanding, although he doesn't register a strong enough reaction to the devastating news he gets late in the picture. In fact, the film tries a little too hard not to be overly sentimental or manipulative. The screenwriters aren't always on target. Since both del Mar and Twist are essentially homosexual, the movie doesn't have them getting jealous of their various opposite sex involvements, but two people in love would get jealous no matter what the sex of the other lover. The movie doesn't really delve that much into the ironies of the closet [when one says “I'm no queer” after their first sexual experience together, the other replies “Me, neither,” in spite of the fact that he's just taken it up the ass.] The sexual interludes are initially devoid of tenderness, kissing, but become more romantic – but never pornographic – as the film proceeds. Ang Lee proves a better director of dramas than of the action films he's done in the past. Not necessarily a masterpiece, but certainly an interesting, absorbing, and worthwhile motion picture. However, it's hard not to notice that this film doesn't exactly detail a positive, openly gay relationship between two liberated people, which Hollywood still may not be ready for. William Schoell.

The New York City Opera Company (NYCO) -- not to be confused with the more prestigious Metropolitan Opera Company (The Met) -- commissioned composer Charles Wuorinen to work on an operatic version of the original story. Proulx may or may not work on the libretto; Wourinen, who may or may not be gay, won't start work on the project until 2009. NYCO doesn't plan to premiere the work until 2013, by which time Wuorinen will be 75. But let's remember that Richard Strauss wrote some of his greatest operas when he was older than that.

Okay. A quick aside about the relationship between gay men and opera. There is none. I happen to love opera, but few of my gay friends of any age will even go with me. I know there are other gay guys who like opera, but we're not as large in number as people seem to imagine. Just another cliche about the gay community. (Although, may I say, that since opera is a pretty classy art form, if we all were opera fans, so much the better. But we're not. Trust me on this.)

This is how it came about. Tom Hanks played a gay man in the mainstream movie Philadelphia. He played a gay man who loves opera. Lots of people went to see the movie. And somehow it came into being the idea that not only are all gay men obsessed with show tunes, but with opera as well.

(I believe my love of this type of music has little to do with my sexual orientation. Rather I was raised by two parents who went to see virtually every Broadway show that opened, and my mother and grandfather were big opera fans. I was also lucky enough to have a good family friend who was very much into the art form as well.)

So what do I think about Brokeback Mountain -- The Opera? Well, I'll try to keep an open mind, but two thoughts do come to mind.

A.) Apparently Wuorinen is an very modern, atonal composer, and I happen to prefer music from the romantic period. My favorite operatic composers are Pietro Mascagni, Giacomo Puccini, Giuseppi Verdi, Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (who slummed when he wrote some excellent scores for Hollywood movies but was essentially a composer of opera). If I felt Wuorinen had the stuff of these guys, that would be one thing, but few if any modern composers do. I have a feeling if the opera works at all it will work because of the story, not the music. I fear it will be two or three hours of blathery tuneless "arias" that no one will want to hear once, let alone twice. But I could be wrong.

B.) Here we have an opera -- one that may well get a big attendance -- not about two Out and Proud gay men who happen to suffer the torments of a homophobic society, but two closet queens. Admittedly there may seem to be more drama and poignancy in this situation. Or at least straight people and married homosexuals may think there is.

Jeez. Let's see. Just what we need. An opera about married homosexuals.

Oy vey!


Queers United said...

i am personally excited for it, being closeted is a shame but it is part of the gay experience and we all go through it.

Bill Samuels said...

You're right about that, of course. Unfortunately the protagonists of "Brokeback Mountain" never come out of the closet.

Maybe the opera will be a little bit different. Thanks for your comment.

iwishicouldquit said...

Irreverent cad that I am, I think it would be more interesting to see this story depicted in the style of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Something along the lines of:

"When I was a lad/
I served part of a year/
As a cattle rancher with a comrade queer/
We wrestled and played and romped in the hay/
But we never thought of thinking of ourselves as GAY."

Sorry, pretty bad. But I never write music parodies. (What never? Well, hardly ever.)

Bill Samuels said...

LOL -- I loved it! Maybe you should offer to do the libretto.

It will be interesting to see who's cast in the opera. If it's two straight guys I can see them posing with their wives or gilfriends in every single publicity shot just so no one gets confused!